PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Senate advanced a historic proposal Friday to restore tribes’ sovereignty, ensuring they have the same rights as other federally recognized tribes across the country.
The Senate action, made without debate, came a day after the House approved the bill that addresses sovereignty rights that were forfeited by tribes under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. More votes are needed.
Also Friday, a tribal attorney rewrote language of a separate bill to ensure the governor’s support for letting the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point regulate its own drinking water.
And the Maine House advanced a proposal that would funnel mobile sports betting revenue to tribes in the state.
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The three measures came up this week as lawmakers pick up the pace in hopes of adjourning next week.
The chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point said she was celebrating the steps forward while reflecting on all the hard work by so many tribal citizens over the years.
“People don’t understand the depth of injustice unless they’ve lived it. The Wabanaki people have lived it for hundreds of years. We lived it and we carry it, every single day,” Maggie Dana said Friday from Augusta, where she'd been monitoring the votes.
The sovereignty issue dates back more than four decades, and has long been a source of frustration for tribes who’ve engaged in conflicts with the state over environmental, fish and wildlife rules.
The Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Maliseet traded some rights to the state authority under an $81.5 million settlement that was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. The Mi’kmaq are subject to similar terms under their own agreement, adopted in 1991.
The proposal to amend that settlement would ensure that Native Americans in Maine are treated the same as the nation’s other tribes. They’re currently treated as municipalities, subject to state law.
The proposal to give the Passamaquoddy at Pleasant Point the right to regulate its own water supply is an outgrowth of the sovereignty issue.
The tribe said it has been unable to solve the water problems by working with state agencies, so it wants the right to handle the issue itself, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The House and Senate already gave that proposal strong support, but revisions were made to address the governor’s concerns.
In the end, the bill will still allow the tribe, working with the EPA, to regulate water quality on the reservation and two additional tribal-owned parcels in Perry, said Michael-Corey Hinton, leader of Drummond-Woodsum’s Tribal Nations Practice Group.
The new language makes explicit that it would apply only to those parcels, and not other tribal land across the state, he said.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, meanwhile, supports the proposal to give tribes control of a mobile sports betting market.
The amendment is something of an olive branch from the governor who made helping Native Americans a campaign promise, but has expressed concerns about unforeseen consequences of expanded sovereignty.
That sports betting bill would allow Maine to join dozens of states that allow online sports betting, with the tribes benefiting from the revenue. Critics include the Hollywood Casino in Bangor.